The Descendants of Noah – The Seventy Nations
Ramban suggests that the Torah’s main purpose is to relate the history of Abraham and his family and for that reason, the genealogy of Shem, his ancestor, is also related in detail; Ham’s genealogy is given to inform us of those nations whose lands Abraham was to inherit because of their ancestor’s sin; and Japheth’s line is given, and the story of the Dispersion, is related to account for the difference in languages and to show why mankind became dispersed although it had a common ancestor. Another reason for the genealogy is to demonstrate God’s mercy in preserving man and maintaining the covenant with Noah.
Me’am Loez stresses the poignancy of the phrase. It was after the Flood and the people should have realized that they could not defy God with impunity any more than had their ancestors of the generation that was blotted out.
The Seventy Nations
The Talmudic tradition that there are seventy nations in the world is based upon the ensuing list of Noah’s descendants.
This tradition of seventy nations is deep-rooted. According to the Midrash, each of the seventy nations is placed under the protection of a special angel, except Israel, whose Protector is God Himself.
Just as there were seventy nations, the words of the Torah engraved on the Tablets on Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:2-4) were written in seventy languages (Mishnah, Sotah 7:5) so that all the nations might read it. For the same reason, God’s voice at Sinai divided itself into seventy languages (Shabbos 88b).
The seventy bullocks sacrificed on Tabernacles were offered to atone for the seventy nations. “Woe to the nations!’ says Rav Yochanan; ‘for they suffered a lost (by having destroyed the Temple) and do not realize the extent of the loss. While the Temple existed, the altar atoned for them, but now (that it is destroyed) who will atone for them?” (Sukkah 55b).
The seventy members of the Sanhedrin also corresponded to the seventy nations of the world.
Harav David Feinstein explains the significance of the many parallels to the seventy nations; the seventy languages into which the Torah was translated, the seventy offerings of Tabernacles, the seventy members of the Sanhedrin.
On the verse (Deuteronomy 32:8) “He established the boundaries of nations according to the number of the children of Israel”, the Sages comment that God established seventy nations because Jacob’s family numbered seventy when he descended to Egypt. Why was it necessary for the number of nations to correspond to the number of Jews? Besides, at the conclusion of the forty years in the desert Moses explained the Torah to the Jews in all seventy languages (Deuteronomy 1:5). Why was it necessary for him to use seventy languages when all his listeners were Hebrew-speaking Jews?
Moses explained the Torah in all the languages (Rashi), to symbolize that wherever Jews would be in the future, and whatever the language of the lands of their exile, Jews would study the Torah in a language that they understood.
Also, each of the seventy nations represented a unique characteristic, as the Sages say, one excelled in warfare, another in licentiousness, another in beauty and so on. All of these national virtues and strains of character are present in Israel as well, for each person has gifts to develop and temptations to overcome. God wants all nations to rise to their greatest spiritual potential.
These variations were present in the individuals of Jacob’s family. And the seventy languages used by Moses parallel the seventy facets of Torah; each ‘speaks’ to one of the seventy characteristics with which God has populated the world. (It may also be suggested that each of the seventy offerings of Tabernacles atoned for the trespasses of each of these seventy national characteristics present within Israel, and consequently the nations of the world benefitted from this universal atonement).
Israel, as the spiritual model and leader of the world, was to demonstrate within itself that eminence is within reach of every nation; that every type of person can live a Torah life.
Therefore, a significant portion of Jewish life revolves around the number seventy to symbolize that every national trait can become harnessed for holy purposes.
The breakdown of the nations generally accepted is as follows: 14 nations to Japheth; 30 nations to Ham; and 26 to Shem, totaling seventy. For more on the breakdown of nations, read The Book of Jasher – Chapter 7 – The Generations of Noah.
The Family of Japheth
10:2 Japheth is mentioned first because it is common Scriptural usage to continue a narrative with the last-named person. Compare, for example, Joshua 24:4: ‘And I gave to Isaac, Jacob, and Esau; and I gave to Esau’. Here, too, Japheth was the last-named in the previous verse, and therefore this verse continues with him (Ibn Ezra).
10:3 Of the seven sons of Japheth mentioned in verse 2, only the further branches of Gomer and Javan are named. The Torah concerns itself only with those who developed into heads of new nations. The Children who are not enumerated, apparently did not form separate nations.
Similarly Malbim comments that Gomer had other children, too. However, only those who themselves formed separate nations – Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah are enumerated. This is the system used throughout all the following genealogy.
10:4 The Vilna Gaon in his commentary to the parallel chronologies in 1 Chronicles 1:7 explains that all names occurring in these lists without the pronominal suffix ‘im’, such as Gomer and Magog, are proper names of the children which their descendants assumed as national names. Those names ending with the plural forms ‘im’, however, are not personal names but the designation of the nations that descended from each son.
10:5 Ramban explains that the children of Japheth each dwelt separately and spread far apart on the isles of the sea. This was the blessing of their father Noah who said (9:27) God expand the boundaries of Japheth which means that his descendants would be spread over a wide area of the earth. The descendants of Ham and Shem, however, lived near one another as they dwelt on the continents.
“..each according to his language,” – This verse refers to the period after the Dispersion when God changed their common language, (Chapter 11), the Torah not being written in chronological order. The nations, dwelling separately one from another, spoke different languages, despite their common ancestry. Seventy nations decended from Noah, and they spoke seventy languages (Radak).
According to Hirsch, however, this phrase means ‘each to his dialect’. The fact that they spoke in different dialects became the cause of their separation. The Dispersion of Chapter 11 was a divinely forced scattering that intensified the already developing separation. There is a difference between language and dialect, a natural change in pronunciation and speech pattern that results when people are separated from one another.
The Family of Ham
10:6 “..and Canaan.” – Describing the base characteristics of Canaan the Talmud (Pesachim 113b) comments that, ‘Five things did Canaan charge his sons: Love one another, love robbery, love lewdness, hate your masters, and never speak the truth.’
10:8 “And Cush begot Nimrod.” – Me’am Loez comments that, as a son of Cush, Nimrod should have been listed among Cush’s other offspring in verse 7. This separate listing is to suggest that Nimrod proclaimed himself to be a god and people worshipped him thinking that he was not a mortal man born of a woman. Therefore, Scripture makes a special point of saying that Cush begot him as if to ridicule those who believed he was an idol.
According to Ramban, however, Nimrod is listed separately because he did not form a nation under his own name.
As Hirsch comments: Those mentioned up to now were founders of nations. That, Nimrod did not do, but introduced the new factor of might and domination into the development of nations.
“He was the first to be a mighty man on earth.” – Rashi interprets this to be that he was ‘mighty’ in causing the whole world to rebel against God by the plan that he devised for the generation of the Dispersion.
Nimrod became mighty in defiling God’s Name in the world by establishing idolatry.
Radak explains that in the literal sense it certainly does not mean that there was never a mighty man before him, or that he was the only one in his generation. Rather, the verse tells us that he was the first to subjugate others and proclaim himself a monarch over others, because until his time there was never a king; people were governed by judges and leaders. Furthermore, all of these events happened after the Dispersion.
He was the first monarch. For preceding him there were neither wars nor reigning monarchs. He prevailed over the Babylonian people until they crowned him (verse 10), after which he went to Assyria and built great cities (Ramban).
Before him every family lived under the authority of its own patriarch (Malbim).
10:9 “He was a mighty hunter..” – He became a mighty hunter of men, becoming the first to use his intellectual and physical superiority to bring lesser men under his domain. He kept people under his dictatorial rule until he was ready to exploit them (Hirsch).
Midrash Aggadah takes the phrase literally: Although meat became permitted after the Flood, no one ever partook of it until Nimrod. He was the first who hunted and ate.
This is followed by Ibn Ezra who writes: He was the first, as a hunter, to exhibit man’s might over the animals. As noted in the commentary to 3:21, the garments that God provided for Adam and Eve passed on to Cush who passed them onto his son, Nimrod. These garments were embroidered with animals and birds. When he put them on, God endowed him with strength, and all beasts, birds and animals crouched before him so that he had no difficulty in catching them. The people thought that these feats were due to his extraordinary strength, and they made him their king.
“..before Hashem” – Ibn Ezra interprets that in the most literal sense, this phrase would suggest that Nimrod built altars upon which he sacrificed unto God the animals he hunted.
A basis for this interpretation is found in Sefer Hayashar 7:30 which states that in his youth, before he turned evil, Nimrod built altars upon which he offered the animals he trapped. Abarbanel qualified this. He explains that Nimrod was the forerunner of those who hypocritically draped themselves in robes of piety as a means of deceiving the masses.
Ha’amek Davar differs from all the above and interprets that Nimrod, unintentionally did indeed perform God’s will. Without strong government, man cannot survive as a secure, civilized race. Nimrod was the first to establish such a strong political system. Thus, although his motives were base and selfish, he is considered as acting ‘before Hashem’, because he was an instrument to carry out God’s will.
10:10 “..his kingdom was Babel..” – Babel mentioned here refers to the city which later, under Nebuchadnezzar, became the center of the empire. It had the same Hebrew name, Babel, as the place of the Dispersion, described in Chapter 11. In English, Nebuchadnezzar’s Babel is usually rendered Babylonia. It was one of the greatest cities of the ancient world. The reason it received this name is given in the next Chapter. Jeremiah 51:13 later describes the city which lies on the east bank of the Euphrates as being upon many waters, abundant in treasurers. As Nebuchadnezzar himself describes the city (Daniel 4:27): Is this not the great Babylon that I built by the might of my power as a royal residence and for the honor of my majesty?
“..in the land of Shinar.” – Hoffmann notes that the name Shinar occurs also in 11:2, 14:1,9; Joshua 7:27; Isaiah 11:11; Zechariah 5:11 and Daniel 1:2. Shinar was the original name of Shumer, the different pronunciations being the result of dialectic variations. It was originally a region in southern Babylonia, and Sangir was the northern region. Later it had a wider signification referring to the entire territory of Babylonia.
10:11 “From that land Asshur went forth..” – We are not told who Asshur was: Since he is listed with the descendants of Ham he was probably a Hamite, or perhaps he was the son of Shem mentioned in verse 22 (Radak).
He saw that his children were hearkening to Nimrod and rebelling against God by building a tower, so he left them (Rashi).
He disassociated himself from that scheme and when he saw that they were defiant to God, he left the country. ‘You departed from four places (Babel, Erech, Akkad, and Calneh,’ said God to him, ‘by your life! I will give you four’ – Nineveh, Rechovoth-Ir, Calah, and Resen (Midrash).
Others believe that Asshur refers to the name of the country, Assyria, and the verse should be rendered as if it said ‘to Asshur’ – the subject of the verse still being Nimrod: After conquering the four cities mentioned above Nimrod expanded his domain and ruled also over Assyria. For this reason Assyria is called the Land of Nimrod as it is said: (Micah 5:5): And they shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword, the land of Nimrod with the keen-edged sword – referring to Nineveh, the city of Rehoboth, and Calah.
10:12 “..that is the great city.” – One cannot be certain whether Nineveh or Resen was described as the great city, but since it is written (Jonah 3:3): Nineveh was an exceedingly great city it follows that it is Nineveh that is here referred to as the great city (Yoma 10a; Rashi).
10:14 “whence the Philistines came forth,” – The Philistine descended from both Pathrusim and Casluhim. These two nations promiscuously mingled with each other and the Philistines were their illegitimate offspring (Midrash; Rashi)
Midrash Tanchuma derives this from the fact that the verse does not say who begot the Philistines, but whence came forth – intimating that they were the offspring of immorality.
The Philistines played an important – but antagonistic – role in the history of the Jews in Scriptural times. They founded five cities. Three of them on the southern coastland of Eretz Israel: Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod, and two inland: Gath and Ekron.